While in Berlin in October 2008 it struck me that the changes brought about by the fall of the wall may have been presented in rather simplistic terms. The general assumption has been that the Western way of life is on its way to obliterating the ways of communism, that capitalism has flowed into the Eastern Bloc and set upon liberating everything: the availability of goods, the ability to purchase them, information, opportunity, colour…
This last one, at least, is a construct. Is it possible that the growing indistinguishability of the two former halves of Berlin points to something lurking behind such constructs, something more unexpected?
In the title essay of Dubravka Ugrešić’s essential book Nobody’s Home (trans. Ellen Elias-Bursać, Telegram, 2007) the author suggests that communist systems of behaviour are alive and well, and are to be found in traditional bastions of capitalism: officialdom, bureaucracy, surveillance, fear, the failure of democracy, the restrictions of political, religious and other freedoms, long queues, half-empty shops… The essence of communism, she writes, was “the repetitive degradation of the individual in everyday situations, the opaque mysticism of things that have been banned, the impossibility of dialogue and mediation, the everyday smashing of heads against the blind wall of the absurd.”
Maybe there is something of the rant in this: but it doesn’t preclude its validity. When the flow of goods and information Eastwards (or outwards, if you imagine The West not so much in the west but in the centre) is not counterbalanced by the equal freedom of human movement Westwards (or inwards) then the inherent injustice of this will at some point, inevitably, come to the boil.
For now, argues Ugrešić, what we get is a cross-pollination of systems of behaviour which catches us unawares: the relative newness of capitalist rituals in Budapest or Tallinn with their care of service and air of opportunity – and the growing overcrowdedness in Amsterdam or Berlin with the resulting resentment towards migrant types peddling things or applying for state handouts.
Among the treatment of many other topics, Nobody’s Home includes a series of essays that consider the notion of ‘national literatures’, exposing the shaky ground it now stands on. Ugrešić then goes further to wonder whether labels for writers such as herself – ‘transnational’, ‘post-national’, ‘cross-border’ or ‘para-national’ – really mean anything.
The biographical note on the cover states that Dubravka Ugrešić “entered self-imposed exile when Croatia’s late president, Franjo Tuđman, proclaimed Croatia to be ‘paradise on earth’ in the early 1990s.” The implied sentiment alone did much to persuade me to pay attention to this book: a highly-readable, witty, often caustic and provocative look at a world in transition and instability, multiple realities and conflict, familiarity and strangeness. Nobody’s home, indeed.